Everyone Is Losing Yemen’s War
Saudi Arabia wants to convince the world that it is on the verge of victory in the poverty-stricken country. The truth is, only more destruction and death lies ahead.
On April 26, I had the privilege of witnessing Yemen’s acting foreign minister, Riad Yassin, deliver a press conference to a rapt audience in London. From an opulent hotel in Kensington, he issued a full-throated defense of his boss, embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is exiled in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after fleeing from the advancing Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite rebel group that has gradually taken over much of Yemen. The Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh — Hadi’s predecessor — Yassin stressed, are responsible for Yemen’s ills; the only solution is international backing for Hadi and his adversaries’ total defeat.
These exercises in public relations have grown all the more common since a Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, a military offensive ostensibly to bolster Hadi and defeat the Houthis and their ally, former President Saleh. The key message of these speeches is always that — despite the pernicious nature of their adversaries — victory is just around the corner. Saudi Arabia’s military spokesman has cast the offensive as a historic success, even saying that the alliance achieved its goals within the first 15 minutes of the operation. Houthi leaders, meanwhile, claim that they’ve weakened Saudi Arabia tremendously, going as far as to claim that they’ll soon be on Mecca’s doorstep.
Saudi Arabia made another victory lap last week, announcing the end of Operation Decisive Storm and the beginning a new phase, dubbed Operation Renewal of Hope. A statement from Riyadh explained the change by saying the previous operation had “achieved its goals” and had successfully protected Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries from the Houthis. But though the kingdom initially signaled an end to the air campaign and the beginning of a political process, virtually nothing has changed on the ground — coalition airstrikes have continued in Sanaa, the capital, and elsewhere as the two sides seemingly remain locked in a zero-sum struggle for power.
The truth, however, is that no one is winning this war. And while all parties involved in Yemen seem far from reaching their goals, there is one clear loser: the Yemeni people.
Even if the war stopped tomorrow, rebuilding the damage would still take years. The airstrikes have destroyed swaths of Sanaa, the Houthis’ heartland of Saada, the central city of Taiz, and other cities, while a brutal air and sea blockade has essentially prevented food and water from reaching the impoverished country. The World Health Organization has warned of the “imminent collapse of health care services,” and reports have put the death toll at more than 1,000 people — but that’s just in the major cities. A number of diplomats and officials from countries active in funding development projects in Yemen have quietly grumbled that the military action of the past month has effectively erased decades of work.
But despite furious diplomatic efforts, it is hard to believe that a peace deal is in the cards. In the heated climate, any unilateral concessions risk being interpreted as signs of weakness. Houthi leaders have defended their actions by casting their situation as an existential battle; unsurprisingly, many of the Houthis’ opponents do the same. The conflict’s increasing regionalization has gone so far as to elide Yemenis’ agency in the whole struggle, suggesting that the power to resolve the conflict may be slipping from their hands.
There is simply little if any trust among Yemen’s various factions. Amid the rubble, Yemen’s social fabric has also been destroyed: The incursions of Saleh-backed troops and Houthi fighters have likely managed to destroy the few remaining tatters of Yemen’s unity, as the largely northern forces have laid waste to the once-charming port city of Aden, causing dozens — if not hundreds — of civilian casualties. Derogatory, hateful terms for Shiites, directed at the Houthis, pour out of the mouths of many Yemeni Sunnis — most of whom would have scarcely imagined using them a few years ago. In the early, hopeful days of the 2011 protests, members of the Sunni Islamist Islah party worked with the Houthis against Saleh, optimistically casting any tensions as the result of the problems of the old order. Many of them are now in Houthi detention, while still others — in a mirror of Houthi rhetoric casting Islah as a virtual arm of al Qaeda — have brazenly called all Houthis the enemies of God.
It’s worth stressing that the Saudi-led coalition has made some progress. The Saudis and their allies have succeeded in taking out the bulk of the aerial and ballistic capabilities of the Houthis and their allies in the Yemeni armed forces. But the Saudis have failed to weaken the Houthis’ hold on Sanaa or pave the way for Hadi’s return. Nor have they managed to spur the creation of a united anti-Houthi force. The motley mix of Islamists, tribesmen, and southern separatists are arguably only united by what they oppose.
I — admittedly, somewhat selfishly — constantly think back to my many Yemeni friends. This war is not even over, and Yemenis have already lost so much; it has been chilling to hear friends tell of the destruction of their homes in one breath and thank God for the survival of their loved ones in another.
During past crises, whenever a friend would bring up the possibility of leaving Yemen for greener pastures, I’d strongly advise them against it, stressing how much good they could do in their own country. In light of recent events, however, I’ve increasingly questioned the wisdom of such advice. Does remaining in Yemen spell doom for intelligent and ambitious Yemenis? Is their country trapped in a downward spiral from which there is nothing to do but escape and not look back? Or, when the dust eventually begins to clear, will they be the ones who must take up the mantle of rebuilding Yemen, finally paving the way to the brighter day that once — just a few years ago — seemed in reach?
Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was based in Yemen from 2011 to 2014.
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